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Why You Should Demand 'Net Morality' Instead of 'Net Neutrality'

Martin Geddes

I have come to the conclusion that "net neutrality" is an ethical issue at heart, one about the appropriate constraint of unfair ISP power. Some people are (I pray unintentionally) on the wrong side of a now-clear moral divide. They are claiming to prevent harmful abuse of power, when in reality their actions create fresh harm.

A central issue is one of technical competence to comment. If your beliefs are disconnected from how the world works, you cannot evaluate whether you are espousing something sensible or silly. Regrettably, we've reached a point where silly ideas have serious consequences. The pool of people who can credibly describe the mathematics that models the technology is frighteningly small.

I would like to offer you an alternative framing to "net neutrality", that of "net morality". This places the focus back where it belongs: on people, instead of on packets. This framing will, I hope, convince some of you who are of good conscience to consider actively resisting the inevitable mounting harm that technically naïve "net neutrality" policies will inflict upon the public.

The theory of "net neutrality" is based on flawed science

The basic concept of "net neutrality" is a theory of non-discrimination (mis)applied to packets. This is embodied in the mantra "all network traffic is equal". That is self-evidently untrue from both an objective (application) and subjective (user) perspective. Yet this mantra is now part of EU law, which national regulators have to implement. In the USA campaigners are trying to use historic regulations designed for circuits to enforce this "neutrality" doctrine.

I've written a huge amount over the last few years dissecting this issue from a scientific and philosophical point of view. The key points are:

  • The "neutrality" doctrine significantly undermines the technical and economic sustainability of broadband. The exceptions offered are meaningless and unworkable.
  • The regulations resulting from this doctrine are unenforceable: the idea of "neutrality" is not objectively defined, operationally measurable, or even relevant to mitigating the purported harm.
  • The underlying model of a "virtuous circle" of users and edge providers is trivially incorrect, since it is based on wrong technical assumptions. This is a scientifically incompetent basis for policymaking, based on fake understanding and false inference models.

A major "science gap" in policymaking

To the best of my knowledge, none of the policy literature (on either side of the debate) has correctly captured the key properties of broadband, its constraints, and the implications for regulatory enforcement.

There is a failure to be aware of, or correctly describe, many essential technical and scientific issues: the resource trading space; schedulability limits; service semantics; systems of proof; emergence; nondeterminism; stochastics; metrics; measurement, and more. Courts are making basic category errors about the nature of broadband.

That means there are fundamental disconnect between the policy process, regulatory enforcement and technical reality. This is a big collective screw-up by our industry on behalf of the modern digital economy. So far only a few people have grasped the gravity of the issue.

The public are at risk of serious harm

The public are at risk of significant harm if we continue to follow this inept policy path. In the short run, it will result in:

  • Service "transparency" rules on traffic management that only serve to create user confusion, since they do not offer the required information on fitness for purpose.
  • Lower overall QoE and higher costs by discouraging rational traffic management strategies.
  • Increased rationing of quality and continued misallocation of resources, damaging the immediate policy goals of growth of digital applications and the spread of broadband.

In the long run it will result in systemic harm:

  • The false technical and scientific basis for the "neutrality" doctrine will result in endless and costly litigation, creating uncertainty for the industry and its customers.
  • New entrants and new services will be discouraged by the uncertain potential for regulatory burdens, and higher costs in network design and operation, since the rules lack any objective technical definition.
  • Regulators who define the network mechanisms will be held to account for the resulting (poor) QoE. This will damage the the legitimacy of regulators as the policy inevitably fails to deliver its promised outcome of promoting affordable and effective broadband.

We also may experience some unpleasant unintended consequences. For example, given the US Title II regulations only apply to unfiltered Internet access, there is now a strong ISP incentive to offer "less than the whole Internet" filtered services to avoid these burdens. So much for encouraging more "Open Internet"!

OK, now for the meat. Here are the specific ethical problems with continuing with the "neutrality" doctrine, which collectively make it "net immorality".

Ignorance of risk and potential for regulatory harm

There are two paths to any kind of intervention: the via positiva (adding something) and the via negativa (removing something). There is an asymmetry of risk and burden of proof between these. See Nassim Taleb's "Antifragile” masterpiece for details.

Proponents of "net neutrality" claim to be protecting an "open, neutral" status quo, when they are doing nothing of the sort. The Internet has been allowed to evolve free from burdens of self-proclaimed saviours, and its technical and economic models have always been changing. The Internet is the poster child for the via negativaapproach.

These campaigners for "net neutrality" are adding a new burden and constraint on ISPs by limiting the intentional and operational semantics of networks. This is the via positiva, the antithesis of what made the Internet a success. As a result, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate the absence of risk from their intervention into a complex system. No such proof has been offered (nor can there be one).

Those who oppose net neutrality have no such burden, as they are taking the via negativa. Free enterprise is allowed to go on without having to justify its existence. People are assumed to act in self interest, and thus limit self harm by default. Fools get forced out of business in the end.

Given there are good reasons to believe the technical assumptions of campaigners for these regulations are not well-grounded in scientific understanding (to put it mildly), there is a strong moral case for abandonment of their approach. They cannot make a "safety case" for their intervention (and there's a strong "unsafety case" in existence.)

Demonstrated unconscious incompetence

There is a widespread proven technical incompetence by key proponents of the "neutrality" doctrine. Specifically, they have completely failed to note that stochastic nature of broadband and its consequences. This is akin to attempting spectrum policy whilst being ignorant of even the existence of the physics of electromagnetism.

Those who have campaigned for "net neutrality" have had years in which to create a practical framework for enforcement that reflects the statistically multiplexed nature of broadband. This is wholly absent, and their false technical assumptions have been exposed. As a result, regulators are now left with rules that make for good political slogans, but cannot (in principle and practice) be turned into enforceable processes.

No skin in the game

I've bet my livelihood on the science of network performance and a variety of entrepreneurial activities to apply that science. If I can't persuade customers to buy my consulting, technology or network services, I go hungry. These are deals my clients and customers freely enter into.

I have skin in the game, and I carry the liability for any harm I cause. If my beliefs are wrong, I get hurt. I am not foisting my beliefs upon anyone, especially not through the force of law. Don't like 'em? Unsubscribe now! Don't ever buy my services! Shoo!

But what if you're lobbying for a major policy intervention to limit ISP action, and you're taking money from a university, political donors, or content providers? What consequences do you face if you're wrong? If none, you've got no skin in the game. The moral weight of what you say is very low.

ISPs all have skin in the game of the long-term viability of their service. This is even true of the most monopolistic, rent-seeking, and even dishonest ones. There is an asymmetry here, and it is one that should give policymakers serious pause for thought. Just because someone wakes up one morning having an attack of self-righteousness as a defender of the Internet doesn't make them an automatic warrior for truth and justice.

False morality and fraud

There is also an issue of false morality. The emotive idea of "discrimination" has been trotted out and applied to packets. But is it actually meaningful? The answer is a clear "no".

Packets are not people. They are merely datagrams, which are being fired out from software applications duelling for network resources. Being fair to arbitrary fragments of data flows is not a moral imperative. Indeed, it achieves the exact opposite: whoever acts the greediest, gets the most. Collaborative behaviour is punished.

At its worst, we see this false morality play out in the ethics of groups campaigning for unmetered data access. They may even claim the moral high ground by only taking money from the public. In reality, what they are demanding — unbounded resource entitlement, yet with good experiences at sustainable low cost — is technically impossible in this universe. It's awfully close to being a fraud on their donors.

An alternative: net morality, not net neutrality

We need an alternative framing to "neutrality", which falsely promises fairness. What could it be?

I propose a new doctrine: net morality. Here's what that means to me.

It is a world in which those who are poorest get affordable services, even if they aren't "neutral" (whatever that means).

It is a world where the deaf can access cheap and reliable video sign language, without any legal barriers to its delivery.

It is a world where an old woman who stays at home to look after her invalid husband can know that online grocery shopping will not cruelly fail just when she needs it most.

It is a world where people matter more than packets.

I hope you'll join me in demanding more morality, and less neutrality.

By Martin Geddes, Founder, Martin Geddes Consulting Ltd He provides consulting, training and innovation services to telcos, equipment vendors, cloud services providers and industry bodies. For the latest fresh thinking on telecommunications, sign up for the free Geddes newsletterVisit Page
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Share your comments

Excellent Kim Liu  –  Apr 06, 2016 4:10 PM PST

It is pleasing to read this article.

It has been a glaring flaw of 'net neutrality' that the idea that "fair treatment of packets" is somehow equivalent to "fair treatment of people."

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